By David Montenegro
Purple Post Executive President

Photos by Erin X. Smithers, provided by First Works (used with permission)

Musician Angélique Kidjo visited Classical High School to give an exclusive performance on Friday, February 21st. The Classical community and visitors from all over Rhode Island spectated the interactive matinee in a concert and post-show conversation and Q&A with Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune. Kidjo delivered a show with spirit and excitement influenced by her diverse cultural perspective.

Hailed as “Africa’s premiere diva” by Time Magazine, Kidjo is a global superstar who has partaken in singing, songwriting, and humanitarian aspirations with a combination of African and Western music styles in numerous languages. Kidjo’s album “Celia,” a tribute to the late salsa legend Celia Cruz, helped her earn the Best World Music Album in the 2020 Grammy Awards last month.

The event was organized by FirstWorks, a Providence-based performing arts organization, as part of their’ “Raise Your Voice” program, “a season-long project designed to amplify diverse voices and celebrate differences through the performing arts.” 

The four-time Grammy winner and Beninese singer told her life story and experiences in her younger years back in Benin. Kidjo sang her first performance at the age of 6, “Atcha Houn,” without instruments except for her own hand clapping. Her nickname growing up was “When, Why, How” because of her questions she asked and the curiosity that contributed to her intellectual flourishment.

While raising Kidjo and her 9 siblings, her parents taught the importance of treating people regardless of the color of their skin, with strong resistance to prejudices such as “racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia.” Kidjo was exposed to the idea of racial discrimination as a child, from the time she was taught about the slave trade and the South African apartheid, which opened her views on social injustice worldwide. While those events had upset her, her father told her all the time: “Your brain is your ultimate weapon. Don’t engage in through that can turn you into believing that hate is the answer to everything.”

She fled from Benin to Paris in 1983, during the time when Soviet-sponsored dictator Mathieu Kérékou was in control of the West African nation. Its government then forced artists like Kidjo to write songs in favor of them, in which Kidjo refused to be taken advantage of.

Her performances of her songs “Atcha Houn,” “Mutoto Kwanza,” and “Afrika” (to name a few) highlighted the evening. Her song ‘Mutoto Kwanza’ was inspired by a time she volunteered in Tanzania, where she visited a poor children orphanage, many who were infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Thus the song title translates to “Children First.”

Being raised with that philosophy, Kidjo is a long-time advocate for women’s rights and girls’ education in the African continent and around the globe.

After the show, a Q&A session took place with the audience, in which Kidjo conversed further about her music career, personal life, and supportive advice for students.

“FirstWorks is thrilled to continue our relationship with Angélique Kidjo and give Rhode Islanders an astonishing, dancing-in-the-aisles performance, on the heels of her phenomenal Grammy win. We’re excited to have her talents reach Providence audiences and public school students through FirstWorks Education,” said Kathleen Pletcher, Executive Artistic Director of FirstWorks, in their press release.

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Angélique Kidjo with Principal Barr and Kathleen Pletcher, FirstWorks Executive Artistic Director
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Classical High School Students and Alumni join FirstWorks and Councilwoman LaFortune with Angélique Kidjo
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Guitarist Dominic James (left) and Angélique Kidjo (right) performed songs and stories for the audience of Classical High School students, parents, alumni, and students from other area schools as part of FirstWorks’ Arts Learning program (photo by Erin X. Smithers)

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Angélique Kidjo tells stories from her childhood in Benin, West Africa, and her indomitable spirit which led her to pursue music and flee an oppressive regime. (photo by Erin X. Smithers)

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Providence City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune led a conversation with Angélique Kidjo talking about the immigrant experience and keeping your voice heard. (photo by Erin X. Smithers)